Lost in Translation

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2007-03-28 23:26:10 (UTC)

10 years of "Urban Hymns"

Out of the gate, at first listen, the violins consume you.
The horsehair lined bow and finger grasped stick-- first up
and then down, then, the angelic second set of strings layer
quietly in the background, slowly, gaining velocity as if
[following] behind you whispering your name in agony. At
peak, the Mick Jagger violins and Keith Richards violas
segue into an exploding combination of stiff metallic guitar
licks, waltzing drums and the echo-chambered monotonic voice
of Richard Ashcroft. Oh my god you realize, I’m listening to
another album from the Verve.

Yes, that’s how it felt at first listen ten years ago when
my favorite band released “Urban Hymns”. In describing the
intro to the record, “Bittersweet Symphony”, a song
immortally ingrained into the hearts and minds of teenagers
who saw the last scene of “Cruel Intentions”, in the form of
Reese Witherspoon escaping town, top down in her diseased
lovers Jaguar and sunglasses, appearing free of all that is
evil and wrong. The song was even more recently proclaimed
by the lead singer of Coldplay as “the best ****ing song
ever written” and not to mention the song’s use as a
pre-game introduction “pump up” for the Seattle Seahawks--
you begin to grasp that it’s relevance in the history of
music is vast in scale.

My acclaim on the other hand comes in a more subtle form.

In all its beauty Urban Hymns is simple, heartfelt and
painful to ingest. Richard Ashcroft crafts songs like he’s
weaving a throw rug, by slow stitching every chord,
measuring every word and scaling every melody around a
central idea; loss. In the albums second installment,
“Sonnet”, Richard blankly screams to his ex-lover, “Yes,
there’s love if you want it / don’t sound like no sonnet”,
an obvious plea to re-install a failed relationship with
someone he cares to deeply about to let go. To the over
zealous listener, subliminal drug references and junky
imagery might have been Ashcroft’s motivation to write such
a song in anguish, something not unlike Bob Dylan or Neil
Young, but to the Verve fanatic, you know Richard is not so
complex in his prose.

“All this talk of getting old / it’s getting me down my
love”, sings Richard in the fourth installment boldly titled
“The Drugs Don’t Work”. I can write a thousand words about
this song and what it means to me personally. I can tell you
that it was my only therapeutic refuge when my beloved 8
year old cousin Andrew died of an unknown ailment in 1998.
As the dark wave of anxiety and heartache flushed across my
family, I was looked upon for strength and fervor at a
moments notice. So naturally, whenever I hear the above
twelve words in sequence it still brings me to tears. I
regularly ask myself what Richard was thinking, and what he
must have been going through when wrote this piece. Was he
sitting bedside in a painfully pastel-white hospital room in
London, with swollen eyes, holding his father’s hand as he
lay dying of cancer? Did he even have to think of the line,
"If you wanna show, than just let me know and I'll sing in
your ear again"? Or did he just recite it on a tear drenched
notepad. Did he know that his creations would become a
blueprint for future songwriters like Ben Harper and Jack
Johnson, helping them form a delicate new music genre,
facilitating a concrete way to write about things so
personal? Whatever the answers are- the song’s frailty and
placidity silently took us back to a time where
commerciality had no premeditated influence on a #1 hit song.

At it’s staunchest; “Urban Hymns” is an echoic journey
engulfed in incoherent white noise and pasty rhythm.
Musically, there is nothing that stands out particularly in
songs like “Catching the Butterfly”, “The Rolling People” or
“Come on”. Of the heavily delayed guitar licks, strangling
bass lines, mechanically fuzzy drum beats or Richard’s
vibrato infused voice; not one of them work unilaterally,
they all coexist in unison, forming a pulsating and poetic
bit of sound art that reflects in repetitive stretched out
verses like, “I'm gonna keep catching that butterfly, in
that dream of mine”. As if reconstructing the wretched real
world in A- minor and replacing it with pristine tranquility
that is never ending as long as his thoughts remain on that
butterfly in G- flat.

Pain, desire, and a delusional state of mind are emotions
normally left in the wake of a bad breakup, but it is the
true artist that effortlessly captures the sentiment and
successfully conveys it in only couple of paltry lines. In
his attempt to sway his ex-love back into his life, in the
song “One Day”, Ashcroft states to his mysteriously
reluctant mate, “Tie yourself to the mast my friend / And
the storm will end”, he goes on, “Oh, you're too afraid to
touch / Too afraid you'll like it too much” and he
concludes, “One day maybe we will dance again” in a rigorous
repetitive howl.

In my resulting condition, I owe a tremendous debt of
gratitude to Mr. Ashcroft. To some people, it is no secret
this writer has seen some low points in life. Times where
I’ve felt so low, no matter who I met, I automatically felt
inferior to them. I feared their successes and grew singly
envious. And as anyone with severely low self esteem would,
I resorted to drinking and drugs to cope with the fact I
loathed my shortcomings. Things would carry on like that for
awhile as I was unmotivated in seeking resolution to the
problem; I just preferred to seek my temporary relief
artificially. It all changed the first time I heard the song
“This time” and the lyric, “No time for sad lament / a
wasted life is bitter spent”. As you can tell, no grand
explanation is required for those words. They grasp your
shoulders, look you in the eye and demand your reprieve of a
life less ordinary.

Ten years have past and this album sounds as fresh as the
day I first bought it way back in nineteen hundred and
ninety seven. As I look back, I see it as a benchmark of my
own personal growth and status symbol of a fading period of
time where I cared, bothered and loved a little less than I
do now. Life seems to have more meaning than it once did
and I find myself no longer that selfish and petty little
kid living only for weekend excess. I am accepting the fact
that I am growing older (as well as wiser), and I take
solace in that fact. Some people have a tendency to view
these personal revelations as dire, or a bitter confirmation
the free and tenacious days of their youth are dwindling
smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror of their lives.
It is best summed up in the words of the hit “Lucky Man”,
“Well, I'm a lucky man / with fire in my hands”. Damn right:
I am growing, I know where I am going and I know how to get
there, with a little music leading the way of course. I am
my only obstacle now.